RuPaul’s Drag Race is the illegitimate offspring of Project Runway and Make Me a Supermodel. But let’s not be mad. Logo’s lifting from Bravo, the first real gay network, is wholly appropriate for the “search for America’s next drag superstar.”
The point of drag, of course, is exaggerated imitation, and it’s best when serving up a trenchant critique of conventional sexed and gendered identities, as well as a pervasive celebrity worship. As drag has the potential also to challenge the spectacles of femininity produced by heteronormative culture, RuPaul’s Drag Race might have sent up the hyper-capitalist individualism promoted by such “reality” fare as its obvious Bravo predecessors.
Unfortunately, RuPaul’s Drag Race doesn’t provide such critical barbs. Instead, it speaks to the demise of camp as critique and its incorporation into capitalist values.
The show brings together nine of the “fiercest” drag queens from across the U.S. and puts them through the standard paces of reality competition shows. In the first episode, the girls were assigned the task of creating a “high fashion” outfit “on a dime.” They were presented with racks of thrift store cast-offs and shopping carts full of items from a dollar store. Where some drag queens might have use the opportunity to show real ingenuity, most of these contestants bemoaned the “cheap” materials. Rebecca Glasscock, for instance, claimed she’d brought with her “probably $25,000 worth of costumes,” not-so-implicitly wondering what she was supposed to do with this crap. It appears she won’t be offering much opposition to mainstream culture when she so eagerly embraces its most dominant value, trust in the dollar.
Episode Two offered the contestants a chance to skewer the pop sensibilities of the overly produced girl-groups that have been a music industry standard at least since the Supremes. Divided into two groups, the drag divas were told to create a look and choreograph a routine to be performed and judged by “extra special guest” and ex-Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams. Here, rather than doing anything bitchy with the pre-packaged “girl power” of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” they played it “straight,” their routines displaying the same bland polish of the originals. The “Independent Woman” group (Akashia, Bebe Zahara Benet, Jade, and Tammie Brown) was apparently unable to resist reproducing the infamous power-grabs and meltdown of Destiny’s Child. After Akashia steamrolled the other members into doing what she said and then watched them do all the sewing, wig-styling, and choreographing, Tammie observed that Akashia “was” Beyoncé. Imitation, as the saying goes, is flattery, and as such lacks the edgy parody of drag at its most pointed.
Such clawless reproduction extends to the contestants’ weak drag personae. Tammie Brown says her character brings “a touch of ‘old Hollywood” back into drag, but really, another Bette Davis impersonation? Davis was already a drag caricature of herself, and Tammie so far has nothing new to say about Davis or the Hollywood star system that produced her. Nina Flowers diverges from the antiseptic glamour of the rest of the contestants in her goth-punk, gender-fuck persona. She might still have a point to make about standards of “beauty” and “fashion” even as she recalls ’80s punk fashionistas like Stephen Sprouse and the already iconic punk drag of performance artist Leigh Bowery.
There is no doubt that all of these queens are working hard at self-creation, but at this point in time, it seems no mode of expression is not already commodified. RuPaul herself is a case in point.
RuPaul’s 1992 dance hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” which crossed over from gay clubs to mainstream pop, parodies the labor of modeling at the same time that it fantasizes that a drag queen might become the “supermodel of the world.” In the song, that model must submit to the gender and labor dictates of capitalism. She’d better work hard and “work it,” that is, manipulate the ambiguities within standards of beauty and establish herself within those parameters.
In Working Like a Homosexual, Matthew Tinkcom argues that camp is not, in fact, antithetical to capitalism, but directly produces cultural commodities. RuPaul is certainly such a commodity. And so too is RuPaul’s Drag Race, heavily branded not only by Logo — that registered trademark of gay and lesbian normativity — but also by incessant product placement in and around the show by Absolut vodka and MAC cosmetics. The contestants only add to the process, their performances empty of parody or politics. They submit to their full commodification in the desire to become the next “international drag superstar.”